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Listen and learn

Young Jews speak their minds at Jewish Standard rap session

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From left, Ben Prawer, Shir Michael, Maayan Weiss, and Nis Frome discuss their views on being Jewish. Photos by Joff Jones

What would you change about the Jewish world? Is it important to marry someone Jewish? What issues face young American Jews today?
Seven college students, including myself, discussed these questions at The Jewish Standard’s first annual Teen Rap Session, held at the Glen Rock Jewish Center on Aug. 10.

While the students represented a wide range of opinions, they all said they care deeply about the issues and feel connected to the Jewish community. Still – as one participant suggested – the opinions held by college-age Jews often are unsolicited, or ignored, as the community engages in long-term planning.

The Standard hopes to correct that oversight by convening these students on a regular basis.

This year’s panel participants, ranging from 18 to 20 years old and hailing from both Bergen and Passaic counties, included Michael Cohen (Wayne); Ruben Waldman (Teaneck); and Ben Prawer, Shir Michael, and Nina Follman (Glen Rock). Also from Glen Rock, I led the discussion with my fellow Standard intern Nis Frome of Teaneck.

Jewish identity

Students were asked whether it is important to marry someone Jewish.

“This is something that I’ve been battling with for a long time,” said Prawer, “and I think I’m leaning towards marrying Jewish. I don’t think it’s because I care if my spouse believes in God; I just don’t think I’d feel comfortable raising my kids anything but Jewish.”

He explained that his personal connection to Jewish culture is something he would want his children to experience as well.

For Waldman, “It’s very important to marry someone Jewish, just because I think it’s important to preserve my heritage, my culture, and my traditions as a Jew. For that reason,” he said, “I would only be comfortable raising my kids Jewish if I knew that I had a Jewish spouse to raise them with.”

“I don’t think you have to marry someone Jewish, necessarily,” Shir Michael countered. “I think its more about the person wanting to understand the culture, learn the culture, and if they’re willing to do that, then I think its acceptable to marry someone who isn’t Jewish,” she said.

Cohen agreed, adding that it was “more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. To me, being Jewish is about celebrating the holidays, coming together as a family … and in order to preserve that, I think it’s easier to ‘keep it in the faith.'”

All agreed that Jewish culture is something they want to preserve in their future family lives, and that more often than not, it’s easier to form an instant bond with other Jews than with people of other groups.

The Israel connection

Of the seven forum participants, six have traveled to Israel on more than one occasion. They discussed family trips, Birthright Israel opportunities, and what it means to feel a connection to Israel.

Cohen, who was born in Israel and lived there until he was 11, said that Israel would always be a “second home” to him. And Waldman, who has visited Israel many times, said, “Anytime I have the opportunity, I just jump on that plane and go.”

“I didn’t really understand this whole ‘homeland’ talk,” Prawer admitted, but when he got the chance go on a Birthright trip, he made his own discovery, he said. He noted that “in a country just about the size of New Jersey,” he and many others from his group saw people they knew just walking down the street.

“That could never happen with any other religion, in any other country – it will only happen to Jews, in Israel,” he said, “and that was just something so special and fascinating to me that I really felt a connection when I went.”

Follman said that she had not yet been to Israel, but she has heard so many positive stories about her friends’ experiences there that she hopes to go on Birthright soon.

Following the news

All the participants shared an interest in Israeli politics and a desire to keep up with news of the region.

Cohen suggested that what is best for Israel is also what is best for Jews living in America.

He acknowledged that although Israel should be a top priority, America does have other concerns it has to deal with.

“Many Americans need to realize that Israel is America’s only ally in the Middle East, and that we can’t lose that connection,” he said. “Jews are a big part of American politics and American life, so I think America really needs to build upon that relationship.”

Michael said that she “always believed the connection between America and Israel hasn’t been strong enough” and that the reason Jewish American teens in particular may not be as involved is because “no one is teaching them how to connect with Israel.” In order to bridge this divide, she suggested that teens, and even children, should be more exposed to everyday life in Israel.

Aside from its relationship to America, Israel often features in the media spotlight. “Every once in a while I’ll check on haaretz.com or The Jerusalem Post just to get a more informed notion,” Waldman said. “I think there’s a definite problem with at least American and European media in showing both sides of the story, with issues pertaining to Israel.”

“Surprisingly,” he added, “I’ve read more than a few articles from Israeli news sources that don’t paint Israel in a flattering way.”

In response to those who claim that American Jews “blindly support” Israel, he said that Israel “isn’t infallible” and that it, too, can make mistakes. Still, he added, it’s important to support it in all the good that it accomplishes, “and it does a lot of good.”

Many people try to gain a fuller understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the news, but “people have to be careful where they get their news from,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, the media is not pure facts.”

“A lot of people are really pro-Israel,” Prawer said, speaking of his family and members of the Jewish community at his school. But, he added, there are also a lot of people who are firmly anti-Israel at his school.

“I wish I had a better picture of the whole story,” he added. Before he left on his Birthright trip, a goal of his was to learn as much as he could about the regional conflict. However, describing himself as very “sheltered,” he said he regretted that he wasn’t able to do so.

Responding to anti-Semitism

One issue that strongly resonated with the students was anti-Semitism, a topic they introduced themselves during the discussion.

“Hearing words that weren’t around me when I was younger,” Michael said of her first year on campus, was something that was “very difficult to adjust to.”

Cohen recalled Israeli Apartheid Week – a politically charged event held at Boston University last year. He said it made him feel uncomfortable, mostly because it was partially funded by the university itself, and, by extension, his own undergraduate fees.

At the same time, said another participant, a college campus is unique in that it can, in an educational way, present numerous viewpoints, beliefs, and opinions.

“It’s healthy to have the debate,” Prawer said. “I think it’s really important to have a lot of different views [on campus]…. I would feel uncomfortable,” he added, “if it was all pro-Israel.”

Sense of community

The participants spoke about their involvement in the Jewish community, both as children and young adults.

One of the biggest differences Cohen noticed when he moved to the United States was the way he and his family expressed their Judaism.

“In Israel, Judaism is all around you,” he said. He didn’t go to synagogue services, for example, because he didn’t feel the need.

“But when I moved here,” he explained, “I realized that I had to seek out Judaism.”

“I think it really depends on where you are in the country,” Prawer added, “and what type of institution you’re in…. Once I got to college there was a lot more outreach.”

As the two participants who are only just entering college, Follman and Waldman explained how the Jewish community played a role in their college decision-making process.

Waldman was impressed with the outreach on his campus when he visited the University of Pennsylvania.

“I would definitely love to be a part of that,” he said. “I think Hillel and organizations like it are a great way for Jews on campus to be in touch, and I definitely see myself taking a role in that.”

Follman was also impressed by the Jewish community at her future campus, but explained that her involvement won’t change just because there is an active Hillel.

“It was definitely part of my decision to choose Boston University, because it had such a strong Jewish presence,” she added. “It’s just really great to be with all other people that ‘get’ you.”

Being Jewish

What do they love most about being Jewish?

“The food!” Prawer exclaimed, as the others agreed enthusiastically.

“The culture, coming together with the family for Rosh HaShanah, having a big dinner, and celebrating each other,” Cohen added, “It’s a lot about the family.”

“You can find a Jew anywhere, pretty much, and just be able to talk to them, and be able to connect to them immediately…. That’s really my favorite part,” Waldman said.

Being able to stand out as a minority is one of Follman’s favorite aspects about being Jewish.

“We’re not only a minority,” Prawer reminded everyone. “We’re a minority that has had a disproportionate amount of success in the world.”

“We’re a minority with a large presence,” Cohen added.

On the flip side, Michael pointed out that sometimes it’s difficult for her to deal with people who do not understand Judaism.

“Some other people don’t understand the culture, and they judge it very quickly,” she said.

Cohen also acknowledged “preconceived notions about Jews and the Jewish religion,” but said that if anything, these judgments and perceptions were just something he’d like to educate others about, showing them “what the Jewish religion is all about.”

On changing the Jewish world

“One thing I’d like to see is a little more dialogue,” Waldman said. “I think the Jewish community is suffering from some real fragmentation…. There are a lot of issues in the news, inter-Jewish issues about all kinds of things, and just to get everybody to sit down and talk would be beneficial to everybody.”

Cohen agreed, adding that he thinks that in order to move forward, “We need to learn how to be one.”

“I wish there was a general understanding that you can ‘be Jewish’ without ‘being Jewish,'” Prawer said. He stressed the importance of embracing Jewish traditions in one’s own way. “There’s such a rich culture that I think everyone can benefit from, and appreciate, and you don’t necessarily need to follow all of the rules or believe everything the religion says you should believe in.”

Following the discussion, members agreed – in Michael’s words – that “everyone has something different to say, and sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but in the end, just to have the conversation is important.”

“I think I gained a reassurance from this,” said Cohen. While “others have the same views as me, and some others don’t … we are still connected, and share very similar beliefs.”

A full video presentation of the forum, in 6 parts, can be found on our website.
First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 1

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 2

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 3

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 4

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 5

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 6

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Shir Michael, top left, Nis Frome, and Ruben Waldman. Ben Prawer, bottom left, Maayan Weiss, Michael Cohen, and Nina Follman.
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